22 February 2017

Lessons-Learned on Pitching & Producing AWP Panels

M.L. Doyle, Matthew Hefti, and Randy Brown were part of a panel titled "The Middle Americans: How Flyover Country Responds to War."
Photo by Andria Williams
I attended my first national conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in Minneapolis, 2015. At that event—an annual gathering of 12,000 writers, editors, publishers, instructors, and academics—I was impressed with the number of offerings that focused on war themes. These included both panel discussions and author readings. While I skipped Los Angeles in 2016, I vowed that I'd help add to the war-writing conversation by proposing a few such events for the 2017 conference in Washington, D.C.

As I quipped at the end of this year's event, paraphrasing that ubiquitous quote attributed to Gandhi, "Be the proposer of panels that will contribute to the change you want to see in the world."

The 2018 event will be held in Tampa. The window for event proposals will open in mid-March, with final deadline of May 1, 2016. I thought I'd document and share a few lessons-learned, in hopes that other war-writers will add their voices to the mix.

There are many little rules to proposing an AWP event. It's a little like simultaneously filling out your tax forms, calling your friends on the telephone, and playing a tabletop war game. Thankfully, the association offers a detailed how-to manual and video. To give you a flavor, however:
  • Moderators/organizers can propose up to three events. A maximum of two can be accepted.
  • Prospective participants can themselves be listed on up to three event proposals, but can only be on two accepted events.
  • Of multiple proposed events, only one can be a "reading."
  • You have 500 characters—not words, characters—to describe your proposed event.
  • You have an equal number of characters to describe the qualifications of your panelists.
Acceptance rates for AWP event proposals averaged around 39 percent for years 2013-2016. In 2017, I was fortunate to have two out of two approved. At their respective links, you can read my 500-character descriptions for "Citizen-Soldier-Poet; How to use Poetry to Bridge the Civil-Military Divide" and "The Middle Americans: How Flyover Country Responds to War." That's because the words you use in your pitches are the words that show up in the conference agenda.

Here's what worked for us, both in terms of pitching and conducting AWP panels:

1. Emphasize diversity
Find panelists who represent diversity in age, gender, color, life and work experiences, and publishing experience. Strive for balance. In the war-writing context specifically, I subscribe to the notion that every citizen has an experience with the topic of war, regardless of whether or not they've ever served in uniform. Remember: "We're all in this together" and "Everybody has their own war. " In our two sessions, then, we featured both civilians and military veterans, from a variety of branches and deployments. Some were just starting out in their publishing careers. Others had multiple published book credits. I'd like to think that, in many ways, our panels demographically reflected our audiences. And we can always do better!
2. Keep your shot-groups tight
Panel math is like beer math: Keep it simple, and know your limits. Don't show up with a list of 10 in-depth, doctoral-thesis questions. Narrow it down to two three formal questions. Make sure to share those prompts with your panelists prior to the event, so they can consider their responses without over-rehearsing. 
Assuming five panelists, if each panelist responds to a given question with a 3-minute answer, three questions will eat up 45 minutes. This will leave 20-30 minutes for questions from the audience. (Depending on venue and schedule, some audience members may have to leave earlier than the official 75-minute end-time.) People like Q&A. Most likely, the people in your audience are fellow practitioners. They want to interact with your panel. Engage them in conversation.
3. Conduct a leader's recon
As moderator/organizer, I arrived to the conference a day early, on Wed., Feb. 8, to make sure there were no unforeseen obstacles. The AWP registration staff helped me run a last-minute check on whether our panelists had properly registered for the event. I also helped coordinate one panelist's last-minute request for press credentialing on behalf of a Washington, D.C.-based media contact. 
I'd told my colleagues on our Thursday morning panel that we'd meet at the Veterans Writing Project's table (seize the key terrain!) on the Bookfair floor, and walk together to the conference room. 
One panelist, however, had spent an hour Wednesday getting eyes on the target, and determined out that our Thursday morning venue wasn't as easy to find as I'd assumed. Instead of being located in the convention center, it was one-quarter mile below ground in a hotel across the street from the main venue. His early-bird information saved us from collectively showing up late and in the wrong place. 
Also, our second panel, unlike the cozy meeting space of our first, turned out to be located in a ballroom the size of a small airplane hanger. You get the space you're randomly assigned, of course, but knowing that ahead of time would have been good information to share with my fellow panelists.
4. Look for ways to make connections & continue the conversation
With only 15 minutes between events, conference schedules often get in the way of exchanging business cards at the end of panel event. Our fix was to publish a two-sided 8.5 x 11-inch hand-out for each panel, complete with author published credits, and contact information. Listing complete biographies cuts down on spending valuable discussion time on introductions. Also, offering public-facing ways of communication (e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) gives introverts an easier way to contact authors after the conference. 
(For panelists, we also published an internal list of telephone numbers and private e-mail addresses, in case of emergencies and dinner coordinations. In fact, we treated information like we would in an infantry squad: Everybody should know the plan.) 
Following our poetry panel, one of our colleagues was immediately approached by a literary journal editor, who inquired regarding a work that had been read aloud. So, having debuted at AWP, the poem will soon see print, later in 2017! It's all about helping make connections!
We published 50 hardcopy handouts per session, assuming that number would likely exceed our maximum attendance. (We had from 35 to 50 people attend each session.) Just in case, however, we also posted a link to an electronic copy of each document at the Red Bull Rising blog. Later, we posted MP3 audio files of each session. Not production-quality, but good enough for note-taking. When the original files proved too huge for his iPod, a blog reader helped us out by compressing those files for easier portability.
So, to recap, here are some takeaways and recommendations for future panel events:
  • Promote diversity in panel composition
  • Plan for 3 to 4 formal questions, tops
  • Arrive early; get eyes on your venues
  • Offer handouts with author contact info
  • Post audio recordings (But try to keep file-sizes small!)
I'm not the only one musing and reflecting on their AWP17 experiences, of course. Check out what these other war writers have been are saying about their experiences:

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